I hear many stories about the children we support through Place2Be's school-based mental health services but one case that sticks in my mind is Tom*. Tom hated school and would regularly try to escape. At just nine years old he was often very angry, especially if he couldn't do his schoolwork or felt he was being criticised. His teacher turned to our Place2Be school-based counsellor for help and she supported both Tom and his mum. It became clear Tom was very anxious, particularly about his mum, who had serious health problems and tried to leave school so he could check on her. Over time, and with the support of his counsellor, he learned how to control his anger and significantly reduced his anxiety. He settled down in class, and his school work improved. Now aged 17, he is a confident and engaging young man. He says the support he received and the coping skills he learned have been life-changing.
Schools are ideally placed to support children and young people's wellbeing. While schools' primary focus has traditionally been on academia, we can no longer ignore the fact that if children and young people are struggling socially and emotionally they will not be able to take full advantage of the opportunities available. Wellbeing underpins all else and it is vital schools have a clear and comprehensive whole-school mental health and wellbeing strategy - understood, owned and adopted by all.
So, what does a "whole-school approach" to mental health look like? In 2015, Public Health England set out eight principles for promoting emotional health and wellbeing in schools and colleges. These cover everything from school ethos and curriculum development to involving staff, students and parents and ensuring targeted support for vulnerable pupils is in place and properly evaluated.
At Place2Be we believe a whole-school approach should incorporate a trained, experienced mental health professional, such as a counsellor or a psychotherapist. This person needs to be on site to provide both targeted, individual therapy where necessary, and group work, where requested. Providing a service that children and young people can access themselves without needing adult referral is valuable to help them develop self-awareness and a sense of control over their own wellbeing. Having a mental health professional on site gives teachers and other school staff the opportunity to discuss any concerns they may have about a child or young person. Supporting the wellbeing of teaching and support staff is also crucial to really make a difference throughout a school.
Once discussion about social and emotional wellbeing takes place across the school and in every classroom, there is a real opportunity to reduce stigma and increase understanding about the impact of stress and how to develop coping skills.
It is important that all staff understand the benefits that this can bring and are committed. I remember one teacher telling me she wasn't sure about this approach - why should the "naughty" children get more time and attention? A few months after Place2Be had been at that school, she became one of our most vocal supporters and would regularly seek advice from our school counsellor.
One of the ways to include all students is to offer peer support training. We often find children will bring their friends to talk to a counsellor because they are worried about them. Children talk to each other about their problems and involving them in peer support has many benefits. Giving all students an understanding of mental health and wellbeing helps develop an awareness, not only of their own wellbeing, but that of their friends. Teaching them about listening skills, empathy, relationships and knowing when to turn to an adult for support gives them lifelong coping skills and increases their resilience.
We must not forget about parents. Supporting parents with their own mental health, talking about how to manage stress and cope with difficult situations alongside increasing awareness of what support is available locally in their community will ensure a whole-school approach spreads beyond the school. Offering parent seminars and workshops that focus on mental health and wellbeing provides additional opportunities to incorporate the wider community. We are often asked to talk about keeping children safe, child and adolescent development, understanding attachment, eating disorders, and resilience.
While the home environment is crucial when it comes to children and mental health, a significant amount of a child's life is spent at school and they have a vital role to play to help children and young people develop the coping skills that contribute to good mental health - skills that will serve them well throughout their life.
- Establish what everyone understands by the terms "wellbeing", "social and emotional" and "mental health"
- Agreeing what these mean will contribute to everyone "taking ownership" and championing the school's wellbeing strategy
- The head teacher, senior leadership team and school governors must lead by example in promoting the strategy
- Students should participate in planning a whole-school approach to wellbeing - they are likely to embrace the strategy if they have been consulted and involved throughout
- Keeping parents and the wider community informed and ensuring they also have a part to play is likely to increase success
By Fiona Pienaar, director of clinical services, Place2Be